Behaviorism was founded in 1912 by the American psychologistJohn Broadus Watson (1878-1958). Watson's position was formed as a reaction to the contemporary focus of psychology on consciousness and the method of research known as introspection, which he considered to be highly subjective. Using the research of the Russian Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), Watson argued that psychology could become a natural science only by truly adopting the methods of science. For him, psychological study must have an empirical, objective subject matter and that the events to be investigated as possible causes of behavior must also be described objectively and verified empirically through experimental research. This latter point meant that introspection would have to be abandoned, for it was unscientific. Watson therefore presented the goals of psychology as the prediction and control of behavior rather than as the understanding of the mind and consciousness.
Watson's behaviorism was an extension of Pavlov's discovery of the conditioning of stimulus-response reflexive relationships. The term "reflex" refers to the connection between some environmental event, or stimulus, and the response that it elicits. The response is involuntary—inborn or unlearned—and relatively simple. In addition, no prior learning is necessary for the response to occur when the stimulus is presented. What Pavlov had already demonstrated experimentally was how previously neutral parts of the environment could become effective in stimulating or eliciting an ani mal's salivation response. By repeatedly pairing a bell with food powder, which elicited salivation, and then presenting the bell alone, Pavlov showed that the bell by itself could then elicit salivation. This process, termed classical conditioning (the process is also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning), in turn offered Watson an explanation for behavior that relied on observable elements, thus eliminating the need to use unobservable and hypothetical mental explanations.
Watson's significant contribution resulted from his attempt to show how Pavlov's discovery of the conditioning process with animals could also explain the behavior of human beings. Watson assumed that human behavior and the behavior of animals were both governed by the same laws of nature. Given this assumption, the objective methods of study that were appropriate for the scientific study of nonhuman animals were therefore appropriate for the study of human beings as well. Watson demonstrated the application of these methods in the famous but ethically controversial case study of "Little Albert." In this study, Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, showed how human emotional responses could come to be conditioned to previously neutral environmental stimuli. "Little Albert" was eleven months old at the time of the study, which Watson and Rayner began by showing that Albert initially approached and smiled when he was shown a live rat. At a time when the rat was not present, Watson struck a metal bar with a hammer. Albert then flinched and began to cry. Next, the rat and the loud, unexpected sound were presented together on seven occasions. On these occasions, Albert reacted to the sound of the hammer striking the metal bar, withdrawing from the rat, moving away from the sound, whimpering, and then crying. Finally, the rat alone was shown to Albert. Now, when only the rat was placed before Albert, he would instantly move away from the rat, whimper, and then cry. Watson and Rayner had demonstrated through the process of classical conditioning that the once-neutral object, the rat, would now produce, or elicit, a strong emotional response.
Watson attempted to present an objective, behavioristic account of the full range of human behavior in Behaviorism (1924), written for a popular audience. In that book, Watson proposed that the stimulus-response reflex was the essential building block of all human behaviors. A collection of separate elemental reflexive responses, unlearned and as-yet unconditioned, could become integrated into a complex habit through the regular presentation of the appropriate stimuli by the physical and social environment by parents, siblings, teachers, and others. The result would be, in Watson's words, "habits, such as tennis, fencing, shoe-making, mother-reactions, religious reactions, and the like." The process by which these habits were formed was presumably the conditioning process discovered by Pavlov. In addition to such "habits," Watson attempted to show that the conditioning of neutral environmental stimuli to existing reflexive responses could also account for thinking and the personality.
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